Myrtle had lost 8 pounds. I was most impressed. A middle-aged Australian Shepherd, she’d never had puppies, so couldn’t excuse her mid-life spread by pointing out her gorgeous offspring. Myrtle had been spayed young, which virtually guaranteed that she would not contract breast cancer in her lifetime (a 1-in-4 risk for older intact female dogs). This also meant she couldn’t drum up excuses about hormonal changes late in life. No, sadly, Myrtle would garner no awards for discovering the mystery behind unwanted weight gain : too many calories in, not enough burned off. In short, Myrtle over-ate and slept in. “Exercise” was not in her vocabulary.
When you realize that she had stuffed 73 pounds into a 50 pound body frame, you might begin to understand the concern. A young dog that is overweight can usually bear the extra pounds with grace. They are active, if perhaps less agile than a truly fit play mate. But look ahead : after years of joints and body parts groaning under those extra pounds, you will find this same pet to be suffering from arthritis at a much younger age than its counterparts. The overweight dog faces their senior years plagued with creaky knees and groaning hips. Yes, we have bunches of medications to come to their aid – an arsenal of anti-inflammatories, analgesics (an analgesic is a straight pain medication that is meant to mask the pain but does nothing to change the underlying condition, does not reduce inflammation, etc), dietary supplements, omega this and that – and they work. They do. But NO pill helps a suffering obese dog as much as taking that extra weight off. The weight loss can’t reverse the damage already done, but it will significantly reduce the everyday burden and muscle strain required to move the body.
As a group veterinarians are seeing obesity with increasing frequency in pets of all kinds. Diabetes mellitus (sugar diabetes) is on the rise, as are heart disease, exercise intolerance and heat stroke.
We feed our dogs too much, too often. I would like to think that the man who assured me he fed his dog only doughnuts was kidding. I understand the desire to share food with those we love. At our veterinary clinic we stock a low cal treat in each exam room. They gum up like rice cakes and average about 3 calories each. No, I don’t suppose anyone would chose it over bacon, but my patients on the whole accept them. The Disney stickers we used to hand out were a little dry going down. We serve treats because we hope our patients have a pleasant experience. We understand what you’re going through.
When meeting a pet who desperately needs to lose weight, I try to review the actual diet as fed at home. There have been some surprises over the years. Dental chews help keep teeth healthy. Bonus! Because most people do not brush their dog’s teeth. But we found some of those chews had up to 50 calories each – which for a tiny dog leading a “lapdog” life could account for 1/5th of their total recommended daily caloric intake! Dog food companies have been slow to publish the calorie count of many of their foods. If found, it will read as “Kcal” or kilocalorie, which is the same as “calorie” in everyday life.
So-called “lite” or healthy-weight or weight-management diets can have widely varying calorie counts. Get that information, calories (Kcal) per cup, before choosing which food is best for your pet. Extra fiber will fill up the stomach, helping your dog feel satisfied with smaller meals. Your veterinarian is always there to help. Blood tests can be checked to rule out underlying health issues, and we offer assistance with prescription weight loss foods and plans that really work – if followed.
We strive for balance. As long as we count the gummy bear and the cocktail peanuts, we can help you make the life plan work. Because at the end of the day, the real reward is talking to Myrtle’s owner and hearing her say in wonder : “It’s as if she’s 2 years younger. I’m getting my dog back.”
Christine B. McFadden, DVM